Aleanya McMahan brings her nieces, nephews and cousins to A.M. Cannon Park in the West Central neighborhood to eat free meals, offered five days a week by Spokane Public Schools each summer.
McMahan, 17, lives in the neighborhood and has been taking advantage of the program since she was 5 or 6, she said.
“We’re really grateful for the program,” said McMahan, who normally escorts about 10 children to the park each day.
Most school districts in Spokane County launched their free summer meal programs this week. Coeur d’Alene Schools started June 11.
Organizers say during the first days, which is typically a slower time, they’ve seen an increase in attendance by as much as 20 percent.
“I think that shows that there’s a real need,” said Doug Wordell, Spokane Public Schools’ nutrition services director.
The federally funded program supported by public schools is for children younger than 18. It’s open to any child, and there’s no application process.
In the Coeur d’Alene School District, the meals also are available to adults for a small fee – $1 for breakfast and $2 for lunch.
Most summer meal programs run through mid-August.
Organizers attribute increased attendance to the recession.
“There’s no surprise there,” said Rob McCann, Catholic Charities’ executive director. “It’s a real sign of the incredible economic challenges we are facing in the community.”
McCann has seen a similar increase through his social service agency. Catholic Charities has offered food, shelter and financial assistance for nearly 100 years.
“This is the worst economy we’ve seen since the Great Depression,” he said.
This is the 20th year Spokane Public Schools has offered free meals.
“From its inception, it was meant to serve needy areas,” Wordell said. And the program has grown from meals being served for four weeks at a few places “to basically providing meal programs at schools, community centers, and working with other nonprofit groups” for at least six weeks.
In Spokane, there are 42 free meal sites. Spokane Valley schools offer 13; three locations serve meals in the Coeur d’Alene School District.
During the first week in Spokane, more than 3,200 meals were served, 700 more than the same time last year, Wordell said. The district typically serves 140,000 meals each summer.
“Anything we can do helps the families provide other needs for their children,” Wordell said. “One mom told us that because she saved money on groceries, she’d be able to buy her children new sneakers.”
The Coeur d’Alene School District is feeding about 160 more children at breakfast and 600 more at lunch compared with last year, said Allison Modine, summer meals monitor.
“I think the increase has a lot to do with the economy, personally,” Modine said. “We have a lot of adults buying meals, anywhere from 20 to 30 adults at each site. They are primarily parents, but some adults just come in because that’s a good deal.”
The Catholic Charities director says it’s sort of frightening how many more people are in need now.
“We are seeing people who used to be donors coming to us for help,” McCann said.
Typically the social service agency serves about 70,000 meals per year at the House of Charity near downtown Spokane.
“We will serve way more than that this year,” McCann said.